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Depositional record of historic lahars in the upper Whangaehu Valley, Mt. Ruapehu, New Zealand: implications for trigger mechanisms, flow dynamics and lahar hazards

Abstract

Mt. Ruapehu, in the central North Island of New Zealand, is one of the most lahar-prone volcanoes in the world. Since historic observations began in 1861 AD, more than 50 individual lahars have been recorded in the Whangaehu valley alone, the natural outlet to the summit Crater Lake. These lahars have been triggered by a variety of mechanisms, including explosive eruptions that displaced Crater Lake water over the outlet or ejected it onto the snow-clad summit area of the volcano; rain-remobilisation of tephra deposits on steep slopes; displacement over the outlet as a result of syn-eruptive changes in lake bathymetry; and lake break-outs from Crater Lake following impoundment of excess water behind temporary barriers of tephra and/or ice emplaced over the outlet. However, only 9 lahar deposits can be distinguished in the upper Whangaehu valley on sedimentological, stratigraphic, geomorphic and petrological grounds, and these are skewed towards either the largest or the most recent flows. In some cases magnitude can be reconstructed from deposit geometry, with the largest lahars producing the highest level terraces, the coarsest deposits, and crossing drainage divides into normally inactive channels. This under-representation of historic events reflects the low preservation potential of unconsolidated deposits in a steep alpine environment, and the overprinting and recycling effect of large magnitude lahars that rework material down to bedrock and effectively reset the stratigraphic record. Development of magnitude-frequency relationships for Ruapehu lahars therefore requires the identification of lahar deposits in proximal, medial and distal settings in order to ensure that the full range of events is represented.

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Acknowledgements

This paper is the result of MSc research conducted by A. Graettinger at the University of Waikato. S. Cooke, K. Hodgson, K. Jackson, K. Kataoka, J. Krippner, R. Pickett and M. Taylor provided assistance with fieldwork. B. Houghton and S. Fagents (University of Hawai’i) provided field-sieve data. LiDAR data was used with the permission of GNS Science and Massey University. Manville acknowledges funding from the New Zealand Foundation for Research Science and Technology (CO5X0006). T.C. Pierson and J.D.L. White are thanked for their constructive reviews that improved the quality of this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Alison H. Graettinger.

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Graettinger, A.H., Manville, V. & Briggs, R.M. Depositional record of historic lahars in the upper Whangaehu Valley, Mt. Ruapehu, New Zealand: implications for trigger mechanisms, flow dynamics and lahar hazards. Bull Volcanol 72, 279–296 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00445-009-0318-2

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Keywords

  • Lahars
  • Ruapehu
  • Crater lake
  • Debris flows
  • Volcanic hazards
  • Trigger mechanism